The Metaverse: The next frontier of human and work experience (I)

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Claudia Sofianu, Partner, People Advisory Services, EY Romania

By Claudia Sofianu
Every so often a new technology paradigm emerges, promising to fundamentally re-engineer industries, economies, societies, and daily life. Roughly 10 years since the last such shift — social, mobile, cloud — we may be on the cusp of a new one: the metaverse.
Touted as the successor to the internet, the metaverse refers to a shared, persistent, three-dimensional virtual realm where people interact with objects, the environment, and each other through digital representations of themselves or avatars. A mainstay of science-fiction novels for decades, the metaverse is not a new concept; early versions already exist, mainly in the gaming industry. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating the convergence of physical and digital, coupled with the evolution of complementary and emerging technologies, the metaverse seems poised to expand into every sphere of human activity.
Undoubtedly, the concept is still in its infancy, but glimpses are emerging into what the metaverse may look like, how people will use it and the opportunities it will unleash. The challenge for businesses, governments, and society at large is successfully navigating this next technology epoch, and ushering in the next frontier of human and work experience.
As the metaverse intersects with various facets of our physical and digital realities, some key questions emerge:
Are regulators ready for the metaverse?
Already regulators are grappling with managing the negative externalities of current physical and digital realities. Issues of personal data collection, privacy, deepfakes, and more are significantly impacting the fabric of our society as well as how companies interact with their customers and employees. Very likely, the metaverse will magnify these challenges and introduce new ones.
In the near term, our portal into the metaverse will be through virtual and augmented reality devices. Not only will they allow us to interact in the metaverse, but they will also allow companies to track increasingly personal data such as facial expressions, blood pressure, eye gaze, and more. Current laws and data regulations will need updating across multiple vectors ranging from equitable access to security, liability, IP, and digital rights as well as new ones like honest self-representation. What would good and fair regulation look like and what will it take for regulators to get ahead this time?
In a world increasingly dominated by virtual reality, the concept of metaverse will most likely soon be on everyone’s lips when it comes to socializing, playing, learning, or working.
If in the pandemic times we have lived and are still living, teleworking was the new normal for how employees did their work, by being physically present in a place other than the employer’s premises, in the concept of metaverses people will be able to work together, anywhere in the world, without actually having to be physically present there. And if we are going to work not only with the Internet (online) but also within it, we should already be considering the development and implementation of a legal framework to regulate this new reality of work and to answer the many questions that will have to be answered, such as: where and how will the income earned by individuals through a digital avatar be taxed, where will the related social contributions be due and paid, or will there be a question of establishing a tax residence for the digital avatar?
From this point of view, it is also interesting to see how employment relationships can be conducted in virtual reality. Various questions, which will have to be addressed by legal regulations, arise from this: what are the occupational health and safety risks of working in a virtual office? How will companies be able to monitor the hours worked in metaverses and how will ‘virtual’ employees be remunerated? what kind of acts could constitute disciplinary offenses in the metaverse and how can employees be held liable for any kind of liability for acts committed in virtual reality?
And as employment relationships always involve the processing of personal data, it remains to be seen whether current legislation will be sufficient to ensure the security of data generated and circulated in the metaverse. So, one of the big challenges in this area could be to provide the necessary tools to prevent identity theft, cyber-attacks, or the illegal or excessive use of special categories of personal data, such as biometric data.

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